Sitting Sen and Collin’s Night to Shine

Today we went to a secondary school, and I wanted Collin to take a turn at leading on the questionnaire; I was happy to get to take the lead on caring for Sen. So, I volunteered to take Senya outside (she was not in a quiet research mood) for the 1 and 1/2 hours of the questionnaire. There was a beautiful breeze, and we played and rested under a large mango tree nearby the school while Collin conducted the questionnaire. Terry took the evening off because, I haven’t mentioned this yet, but she’s about to have a baby any day now. She didn’t tell us that before we arrived because she was concerned that we wouldn’t think she was up for the study if we knew.

So, Collin was in charge of the research this evening, and he did a great job. I could hear his voice in the distance from the mango tree where Sen and I were. Senya has been mastering the art of sitting. She can now sit unassisted for long bouts of time. She was sitting on a small, square of wood under this mango tree, and she looked like she was some kind of yogi or something. With great concentration she would lean over and pluck a blade of grass or select a leaf from the ground without losing her sitting balance. It was so fun to be with her and enjoy her company. Every once in a while, we would hear an eruption of laughter from the students, and I knew that things were going well for the questionnaire session.

I walked closer to the building toward the end of the session, and I heard Collin answering a student’s question:

“I have heard that is a popular belief around here, but it is absolutely NOT true. Having sex with a virgin will definitely NOT cure AIDS. In fact, if someone has HIV/AIDS and has unprotected sex with a virgin, the only thing that will probably happen is that the virgin will end up with AIDS too.”

I was really surprised that the students actually believed this, but (prior to this trip) I had come across this repeatedly in the literature on Kenyan transmission myths.

Again, today was another glimpse into the need for a health club here that would specifically highlight HIV/AIDS and sex education. The students were not only receptive but eager to ask questions, yet again. I have read so much in the literature that the students and pupils don’t feel comfortable discussing these things with their teachers because of the authoritarian role that the teachers have. Also, teachers here typically use a unilateral teaching style; by this I mean that they don’t engage the students in discussion. They just “tell” them what to do. And what they tell them is to abstain.

The main problem with a unidirectional abstinence-only message is that it doesn’t take into account the factors influencing sexual behaviors here. For example, many students and pupils face a lot of gendered social pressure to engage in sex at an early age. For girls, they can’t own land, and they really don’t have much of a voice in society. When a boy (or older man) offers them money or a gift, they accept it because material gain is difficult to obtain as a female in rural Kwale. Then, the boy often expects sex in return. Girls are taught to be passive and submissive to men from birth, so girls often feel like they must comply and adhere to this social script.

Boys, on the other hand, receive the societal message that violent and aggressive sex is biologically rooted and nigh impossible to control. Even rape is often treated with a “boys will be boys attitude.” Sexual activity is often seen as a mark of a boy becoming a man, and adolescent boys often feel pressure to prove their manhood by becoming sexually active at a young age.

I’ve got references on all this, but I’m a little tired for that. If you are interested in citations, then ask me for them.

Anyway, all this to say, I’ve read the literature on all this a lot over the past year and half for other rural areas of Kenya. But wow! It’s still surprising that it’s true here in Kwale. Visiting the schools has confirmed with our own data that there is a real need for HIV/AIDS and sex education in these schools. During the focus group discussions, I’m really going to probe for the social and cultural factors that are shaping the students beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. I want to find out more about the social scripts and gendered pressure, etc.

For now, good night!

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